levelling up

4 ways improv can help you succeed at work (and 2 words that will change your life)

As improv comedians, the same philosophy and principles that work so well for us on stage also work very well when we apply them to our business.

Here are four ways you can apply improv techniques to help you succeed at work.

1. Become an active listener

Everyone thinks that to be an improviser that you have to be super quick. We hear that comment after every show: “You guys are so quick.” We always smile and take the compliment, but it’s not really the truth.

The truth is that we listen very well. And we don’t just listen; we actively listen.

You have to be present, you have to be in the moment, and you have to be non-judgmental. You just have to go with an idea. And the way you do that is to listen and then build on that thought.

As business leaders and entrepreneurs, we’ve learned that being a better listener actually makes you a better communicator. You’ve heard everyone out so you’re able to make decisions without overlooking things. You’re not thinking of the thing you were going to say next; you’re paying attention to what’s happening now.

In the improv world, we don’t know where we’re going; we only know where we’ve been. So it’s paramount that we all retain that information because it’s influencing our decisions, much like in the business world.

A lot of people pride themselves on multitasking. But basically all multitasking is is doing a lot of things in an average way.

When people are actively listening, they’re retaining anywhere from 90 to 95% of the pertinent information. When they’re multitasking, they may be retaining 40%. If you’re at work running around only retaining 40% of the information, you’re doing yourself a disservice, and you’re certainly doing everyone around you a disservice.

2. Practice “yes, and . . .”

The number one rule that we have is to strike the word “no” and replace it with the two magic words “yes, and . . .” It’s a philosophy, not a statement.

It means that you don’t judge an idea. You agree with it by saying “yes,” and then you add your 2 cents so that it becomes a collective idea and both people have by in to its success.

People are often “no, but . . .” There’s a lot of negativity. People will always find the problem or the reason for not doing something.

But they aren’t mistakes in our world; there are only disruptions from the routine. Improv forces you to solve scenarios on the fly. We’re all about finding a work around and moving forward.

Becoming a “yes, and . . .” person is like going to the gym. You have to practice it everyday and reframe your brain to not go to “no” first. If it has to be a “no,” so be it, but make it a considerate “no.”

3. Embrace all ideas

One of the rules that we live by is that there are no wrong or bad ideas, and nobody’s ideas are any better or worse than anyone else’s. There are just high- and low-percentage choices.

The creativity comes when you can recognize that every idea has merit. What we’ve found is that sometimes those low-percentage choices end up being wonderfully creative ideas that we would have never come up with because we would have dismissed them early as wrong. These ideas get the ball rolling.

When you do that within your business, you develop a culture where people realize they’re going to be heard and that they’re not going to be judged or shot down.

Imagine how creative you would be if whatever you brought to the table, your team would build upon. There’s no fear involved. The freedom to create is endless.

4. Empower your team

If you practice these techniques, you’re honoring and empowering those around you, and they in turn will honor and empower you.

For instance, we noticed that a lot of people were on their phones before and during our show. From our perspective as the performers on the stage, we thought it was rude. But then our technical director, who sits behind the audience and runs the lights and sound, told us that he was seeing people give us five-star reviews and tweet about the show.

He suggested that instead of being angry, we should incorporate phones into the show. Now, we have people upload funny photos on our Facebook page, and we improvise from the photos. As a happy accident to this, our social media numbers are through the roof.

When people think about the corporate ladder, they think that the way to get ahead is to step on whomever you need to step on. But that’s not how we advance. The way we ascend is by making each other look good. We pull each other up.

David Wilk, Frank Ford, and David Ahearn are the co-founders of the improv group Four Day Weekend and the co-authors of the upcoming book Happy Accidents: How “Yes, And” Thinking Helps You Open Hearts, Change Minds, and Win Together in a “No, But” World.

As told to Kirsten Salyer.

David Wilk, Frank Ford, and David Ahearn are the co-founders of the improv group Four Day Weekend and the co-authors of the upcoming book Happy Accidents: How "Yes, And" Thinking Helps You Open Hearts, Change Minds, and Win Together in a "No, But" World.